Saturday, December 5, 2009

An Afternoon in the Camargue

I sometimes find myself, despite the title of my blog, doing some wandering that isn't particularly naturalist-related. That includes a trip I took through southern France with Eileen and my parents this August -- but in the course of squiring everyone through medieval towns, Renaissance castles and the like, I did manage, on August 29, a brief visit to one of Europe's few great wildernesses, the Camargue. That's my mother up above, admiring a bit of sedge along the Camargue roadside.

The Camargue is Europe's answer to the Everglades - or, perhaps more closely, to the Venezuelan llanos, with its bull-rearing, horse-riding gardians the French version of the llaneros of South America. It is a huge wetland, over 930 km² in extent, created as the Rhone splits into its delta before emptying into the Mediterranean. We only had time for a quick taste, a drive down the eastern edge of the vast briny lagoon at its heart, the Étang de Vaccarès, a nature reserve since 1927.

The shallow, briny lagoons of the Camargue are ideal habitat for perhaps the least likely of European birds, the Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber). Some 20,000 pairs of them breed here, the only place you can find them in Europe outside of a few colonies in Spain. Unfortunately, driving down the east side of flamingo territory in the late afternoon meant that we saw the birds mostly in silhouette - not the ideal way to appreciate them.

Wetlands, of course, are wonderful places for dragonflies. I think that this one, a remarkably plain creature with lavender-blue eyes, is a female Southern Skimmer (Orthetrum brunneum), a species that ought to be pretty common in these parts, but I would be grateful to be told otherwise by any dragonflyologists out there.

Birds for the afternoon included this young European Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)....

Lots of Black-headed Gulls (Larus ridibundus), by now out of breeding plumage...

An immature Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)...

And this brood of juvenile Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus), not yet in the crisp black-and white plumage of their parents, and with legs yet to acquire the shocking pink of adults.

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